(CNN) — Is the U.S. government indiscriminately monitoring your phone calls or e-mails? It says no.
The nation’s top intelligence official, James Clapper, did acknowledge Thursday that the United States is collecting domestic telephone records to ferret out terrorist plots.
The director of national intelligence also indirectly confirmed the existence of a program using data from some of the world’s biggest online services companies — including Microsoft, Apple, Google, Yahoo and Facebook — to monitor the online activities of non-U.S. residents overseas.
But he said media reports suggesting widespread surveillance of U.S. citizens and their telephone and online habits had it all wrong, and such reports seriously endanger critical programs to protect Americans from terrorists.
He called disclosure of what the Post called the PRISM program “reprehensible” and said news of the telephone-monitoring program “threatens potentially long-lasting and irreversible harm to our ability to identify and respond to the many threats facing our nation.”
The revelations have reopened impassioned debate over how much intelligence is necessary to fight terrorism and when it amounts to dangerous government overreach.
A British newspaper, the Guardian, published on Wednesday a top secret order from an intelligence court that required Verizon Business Network Services to give telephone records detailing the time, location and telephone numbers involved in domestic calls from April 25 to July 19. The order doesn’t allow authorities to listen in on the calls.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, later said the order is a standard three-month renewal of a program that has been under way for years. The Electronic Frontier Foundation and other analysts said similar orders undoubtedly are in effect for other companies.
Clapper blasted the Guardian report, saying it “omits key information” regarding “safeguards that protect privacy and civil liberties.”
He said the program operates within the law, respects Americans’ privacy and is crucial to preventing attacks. Most of the records are never looked at, and those that are can be reviewed only with judicial approval, he said.
“The collection is broad in scope because more narrow collection would limit our ability to screen for and identify terrorism-related communications. Acquiring this information allows us to make connections related to terrorist activities over time,” he said.
Clapper said both Congress and courts have reviewed and authorized the law.
But several congressional critics have complained that the government has made significant use of broad interpretations of the law made in secret by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, the judicial body charged with overseeing the government’s use of the law.
“These reports are deeply concerning and raise questions about whether our constitutional rights are secure,” Patriot Act co-author Rep. James Sensenbrenner wrote in a letter to Attorney General Eric Holder.
Sensenbrenner, a Wisconsin Republican, said he was “extremely disturbed by what appears to be an overbroad interpretation of the act.”
A day after the initial Guardian report on the Verizon court order, the Guardian and the Washington Post published a report alleging that the National Security Agency has access to the central servers of nine tech giants.
The Post reported that the PRISM data-mining program underwent “exponential growth” after its founding in 2007. It has become the leading source of raw material for the NSA, the secretive U.S. intelligence operation that monitors electronic communications, the newspaper said.
Clapper did not directly confirm the program’s existence but acknowledged that the Post and Guardian stories “refer to collection of communications pursuant to Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.”
That section of the law authorizes intelligence agencies to collect information on non-U.S. residents as part of efforts to gather foreign intelligence.
He said the program cannot be used to target anyone inside the United States or U.S. citizens anywhere in the world and includes “extensive procedures, specifically approved by the court, to ensure that only non-U.S. persons outside the U.S. are targeted, and that minimize the acquisition, retention and dissemination of incidentally acquired information about U.S. persons.”
“Information collected under this program is among the most important and valuable foreign intelligence information we collect and is used to protect our nation from a wide variety of threats,” Clapper said Thursday.
“The unauthorized disclosure of information about this important and entirely legal program is reprehensible and risks important protections for the security of Americans,” he said.
At least some of the companies named in the report said they were unaware of the program’s existence and denied allowing the government access to their servers.
Microsoft said in a statement that it does not participate in any national security data gathering program. Facebook and Google said they do not give government agencies direct access to their servers.
Apple spokesman Steve Dowling said his company has never heard of PRISM.
Verizon declined comment to the media Thursday, but company Vice President Randy Milch, in a note to employees, did say the Guardian’s story may spur the company to respond in defiance of a promise of secrecy.
Civil rights groups were appalled.
The American Civil Liberties Union described the programs as “beyond Orwellian.”
The Electronic Frontier Foundation, which has been fighting the government for years over surveillance practices, called for a full-scale investigation similar to 1975’s Church Committee, which led to an overhaul of intelligence practices following widespread abuses.
“It’s time for a full accounting of America’s secret spying programs — and an end to unconstitutional surveillance,” the group said on its blog.
Similar efforts have floated to the surface for years.
After the 2001 terrorist attacks, President George W. Bush’s administration authorized the NSA to conduct wireless surveillance of international phone calls that included at least one person believed to be an al Qaeda-affiliated terrorist.
The program was later ruled unconstitutional.
Another Bush-era program, the “total information awareness” program, would have combined vast government databases into a data-mining effort to look for suspicious patterns revealing potential criminal or terrorist activity. It was official dropped amid intense outcry from civil libertarians.
Also, in 2003, a former AT&T technician made a splash when he alleged that the telecom was routing all Internet traffic into a special NSA-controlled room in San Francisco.
Last year, Wired magazine wrote about a huge data center being built for the NSA in Utah. Officials have officially labeled the center as part of the nation’s effort to fight cyberattacks, but the Wired article, citing former NSA officials and others, said it was part of a huge surveillance program that would take in and analyze untold amounts of data.
Opinions were also strong on the other side of the debate.
Conservative Sen. Lindsey Graham, a Republican from South Carolina, concurred with Feinstein, a California liberal, that the methods are necessary to prevent terrorism.
“Terrorists will come after us if they can,” Feinstein said, “and the only thing that we have to deter this is good intelligence to understand that a plot has been hatched and to get there before they get to us.”
Graham said that as a Verizon customer, “it doesn’t bother me one bit for the National Security Agency to have my phone number.”
When Senate Appropriations Committee Chairwoman Sen. Barbara Mikulski read the news Thursday morning, the Maryland Democrat said, “It was like, ‘Oh, God, not one more thing … where we’re trying to protect America and then it looks like we’re spying.’ ”
Obama takes heat
The reports have increased scrutiny of President Barack Obama’s record on balancing citizens’ right to privacy and the government’s efforts to combat terrorism.
Days after taking office in 2009, Obama vowed, “Transparency and the rule of law will be the touchstones of this presidency.” But on Thursday, the left-leaning Huffington Post on its home page conflated an image of Obama with one of his predecessor, Bush, in a move to criticize the secret surveillance both administrations have been accused of.
A New York Times editorial said “the administration has now lost all credibility” when it comes to overreaching in the name of fighting terrorism.
White House spokesman Josh Earnest stressed the importance of ensuring that “we have the tools we need to confront the threat posed by terrorists (and to) protect the homeland.” He called it Obama’s top domestic security priority.
“But … we need to balance that priority with the need to protect civil liberties and constitutional rights of American people,” he said.
“And that is the subject of a worthy debate.”